District 9 is one of the most anticipated movies of the year, even though we’ve never seen a movie from its director, Neill Blomkamp, before. But Blomkamp — a native of South Africa who decamped to Vancouver in 1997, right out of high school — generated some buzz for himself when he teamed up with Peter Jackson (he of The Lord of the Rings fame) to make a big-budget flick based on the wildly popular video game Halo. That project fell through: instead, the boys started work on something new: District 9, a parable/satire/kickass action movie about alien refugees in Johannesburg, and what happens when they’re about to be forcibly removed from their rundown township.
AWFJ’s MaryAnn Johanson talked to Blomkamp about the importance of science fiction, the surprising gender issues underlying the film, and more.
Johanson: I’ve heard rumors, or at least speculation, that you may have recycled some of what you wanted to do with Halo into District 9. Is there any truth to that?
Neill Blomkamp: No, it’s not true. If anything maybe there’s something subconscious, maybe something in there got worked into it, but I highly doubt it. All the design and all the research and all the work that went into those five months, where I felt I could really go to town was with the humans. You know, a few hundred years from now, human technology and human society, all of those components felt like where the sci-fi element of Halo was. And this film is the total opposite of that. This film is about mundane human society and South African society with aliens mixed in. There’s zero conscious connection between the two.
Johanson: Do you think it’s a coincidence that you ended up working with Peter Jackson? It struck me that there’s a south-of-the-equator cabal at work here: New Zealand, South Africa…
Blomkamp: You know, I emigrated to Canada…
Johanson: Right. But you obviously still feel a connection to South Africa…
Blomkamp: Yeah, which is why I made the movie there.
Johanson: Do you feel like there’s some sort of hunger, that this is the time now for perspectives from outside Hollywood to start breaking through?
Blomkamp: Absolutely. I think that financially, for the next little while, given how the world is going, Hollywood is gonna be where a lot of the decisions are made, and that’s where we’ll be getting the money from. But the stories themselves, and the points of view the stories are told from, and where the directors are from, and where the actors are from, and where the stories are set… I think all of that in the 21st-century culture is going to change. I think that whether Americans like it or not, there’s gonna be more and more films that are made about things that have nothing to do with America, and the settings are not gonna be American. There’s no question that that’s the direction film is going. And the reason it’s going there is that we live in a globalized society. The whole culture of the planet is shifting.
Johanson: I think it’s great. I’m really looking forward to seeing more perspectives. I’m so tired of seeing only American stories.
Blomkamp: I’m so tired of it as well. I’m so sick of it.
Johanson: I love the little dig you got in at the beginning of District 9…
Blomkamp: About how everyone expected the ship would end up over Chicago or Washington…
Johanson: Did you have some idea in the background of the story as to why the aliens ended up in Johannesburg?
Blomkamp: I think I do know why. It ties in with the idea that all of the aliens that we see in the movie are drones — they’re like a termite hive that’s lost its queen through some sort of bacteria on the ship. Because the drones are the only portion of the population that’s left alive, the technology has a built-in safety measure where it knows that it has to keep this population alive but that the elite group that makes decisions is gone, so it just autopilots to the closest life-sustaining planet. So the decision about where to land doesn’t come from a biological organism, it’s just a computer algorithm.
Johanson: So they weren’t looking to get in touch with the UN or anything?
Johanson: You mentioned the queen and the hive, which brings to mind something that I noticed in the film. The aliens don’t really seem to have gender, yet they use terms like “father” and “son” — they’re referred to by male pronouns. Was that a concious thing on your part?
Blomkamp: Yeah, there is no gender. But they’re creatures that look physically quite intimidating and a little bit disgusting to be next to, sitting on the bus or whatever — humans just naturally associate “male” with that. I think they are sexless, I think they have a self-replicative reproductive ability. They have both sexes, actually. But the human convention of naming things — we give them human names, the South African government just stamped a human name on each of the aliens. Ultimately, they should have really been given numbers: that would have been better.
Johanson: So, the characters using terms like “my son,” that’s more a matter of a poor translation into English of the alien language, then?
Blomkamp: Yeah. What else are you gonna say: “my offspring”? Then you lose your empathy for the creature. So I just stuck with the idea that the humans perceive them as male.
Johanson: Are you familiar with the 1980s movie Alien Nation?
Blomkamp: Yeah, totally.
Johanson: How much of an influence do you think that had on the film?
Blomkamp: On a surface level, I think it has zero influence. The concept of aliens arriving on our doorstep and being sort of destitute is, without a shadow of a doubt, something both films have in common. The thing with District 9, it came from my short “Alive in Jo’burg,” and the reason for the short was simply because I wanted to see science fiction in South Africa. So the genesis for this film was bringing science fiction into the city that I grew up in. Which separates it completely from Alien Nation.
Johanson: They are very different films.
Blomkamp: Yeah. And then because of South Africa’s crazy racial background, the segregation, the oppression, everything else, it just felt like it was the right step — the “aliens arriving” story. But yeah, I guess there are a lot of similarities with Alien Nation, but I think that whoever created Alien Nation and I arrived at them through different means.
Johanson: Is there one core aspect of science fiction that’s most important to you? When I think of science fiction, I look at it through this prism of, This is an experiment in figuring out what it means to be human. To me, science fiction is about seeing how much you can peel away and still be human.
Blomkamp: I’ve never thought of it that way before. I’m interested in all the different kinds of science fiction. I suppose you’re right. I suppose looking inward and finding out how much it’s about biology versus the soul, finding where the line is between human and nonhuman, may be at the crux of a lot of the best science fiction. But I think of science fiction just as a way to view topics and view ideas through a different lens. I think it’s just a refreshing way of looking at something.
Johanson: Sure, there are lots of ways to approach science fiction. Another way to look at it is that science fiction is never about the future, or about different planets, it about the way things are no. And you really drove that home here.
BlomkampA: That’s definitely more how I see it.
Johanson: You’ve said you were influenced in a general way by Ridley Scott and Blade Runner. I saw a lot of Black Hawk Down in this movie. Was that conscious?
Blomkamp: I love Black Hawk Down. But there really is no one film I looked at and said, “I want to emulate that.” If there is any Black Hawk Down in this movie, it’s because my goal from the onset was that I wanted to make science fiction that felt real. Or at least presented as being real. Because it’s a crazy concept, but I wanted to ground it. When I made that decision, it might that everything else that followed — the firefights and the shootouts and all — had to be real and grounded. I think that’s the natural outcome, for Black Hawk Down or for this film. I think this is less serious than Black Hawk Down, because clearly it’s satirical.
Johanson: Would you have done anything differently, if you could go back and do it again?
Blomkamp: I think in certain cases, when I see the film now, I feel like I could have maybe turned the volume up on some of the scenes, could have made them either a little more difficult to watch or a little more gruesome. But not much. Overall, I’m really happy with it.
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